Saturday, 10 December 2011

Different offices

According to the Code of Canon Law - and I cite it by virtue of it being an expression of ecclesiology in practice ("applied ecclesiology", to use a term I have encountered at Maryvale Institute) rather than out of any sense of legalism - the office of a Bishop is described as follows. The emphasis added is mine.
Can. 375 §1. Bishops, who by divine institution succeed to the place of the Apostles through the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, are constituted pastors in the Church, so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and ministers of governance.  
§2. Through episcopal consecration itself, bishops receive with the function of sanctifying also the functions of teaching and governing; by their nature, however, these can only be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college.

And the office of the lay faithful is as follows, again with my added emphases:
Can. 225 §1. Since, like all the Christian faithful, lay persons are designated by God for the apostolate through baptism and confirmation, they are bound by the general obligation and possess the right as individuals, or joined in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation is made known and accepted by all persons everywhere in the world. This obligation is even more compelling in those circumstances in which only through them can people hear the gospel and know Christ. 
§2. According to each one’s own condition, they are also bound by a particular duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the gospel and thus to give witness to Christ, especially in carrying out these same affairs and in exercising secular functions....

An appropriate expression of ecclesial communion is achieved when each, the Bishop and the lay faithful, exercise the office that is proper to them. The one should not attempt to exercise the office of the other since by doing so they will thereby cease to exercise properly their own office. I would go further and suggest that, should there be a failure in the exercise of their office by one party, it really is not possible in any case for the other to successfully step in and exercise that office in their stead. An appropriate ecclesial life is therefore utterly dependent on the Bishop and the lay faithful exercising their own proper office conscientiously, since the lay faithful cannot make up for the failing of a Bishop and a Bishop cannot make up for the failing of the lay faithful.

It is useful, I think, to put this consideration alongside the words of Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster Hall, when he spoke of the relationship between religion and public life and, implicitly, of how we might view the relationship between the Catholic Church and public life:
The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.
Reading this in the context of the respective offices of the Bishop and the lay faithful, one can perhaps identify the office of the Bishop particularly with the task of purifying and shedding light upon the application of reason to discovering - and teaching - the objective moral principles that might refer to an issue such as civil partnerships/same sex marriage. The task of then devising particular political or legislative solutions that put these principles into practice, and advocating for them in society, can be identified with the office of the lay faithful. The effectiveness of a Catholic engagement with an issue like civil partnerships/same sex marriage depends on the two different offices being correctly fulfilled by their respective parties. The one party is not going to be able to do the tasks appropriate to the other and have it work effectively for the mission of the Church. A thundering episcopal condemnation may sometimes be appropriate, but not always.

As readers may have realised by now, this is intended as my contribution to the controversy surrounding Archbishop Nichol's remarks about civil partnerships and same sex marriage. Caroline has links to the original sources in the first paragraph of her post Into the maelstrom. I have a lot of sympathy with the analysis in paragraph 4 onwards of Caroline's post. In my own family, there was at one time an exact analogue of Caroline's "Auntie A" and "Auntie B". I recall at the time of the first talk of civil partnerships contributing to discussions along the lines that legislation with respect to pension rights, inheritance etc could have been framed in terms of economic and social inter-dependence (common life). Married status would very clearly meet the requirements of such legislation, even if it was not specially privileged in the legislation. The test could equally be applied to a same sex couple living together, quite regardless of any questions of sexuality or sexual orientation. And, as Caroline points out, to relatives sharing the same accomodation and a common life, and to carers. I also share Caroline's assessment of Archbishop Nichols' remarks, which might be described as confusing, but do deserve a more careful response than that being offered by some. The comments on Caroline's post are also worth perusing.

There are two, perhaps opposing, questions which appear to me to arise from this controversy, one a question for the lay faithful, the other a question for the Bishops. The first is the danger that those who are critical of Archbishop Nichols' remarks (on this matter as on others) set themselves up, perhaps unconsiously but perhaps deliberately, as a kind of "alternative teaching office" to that proper to the Bishop. There are one or two Catholic blogs that I will not include in my side bar precisely because I feel that this is what they are doing. As I have tried to argue above, it is not for the lay faithful to try to take on the office of the Bishop, and they cannot effectively achieve it in any case, and will undermine the exercise of their own proper office at the same time. I wonder also whether this is a danger to which the "traditionalist" Catholic is more prone than others.

The second question is that of discerning what is the most effective way for a Bishop to exercise his office of teaching in a time dominated by broadcast and electronic news media. Is the press conference really the most effective way of presenting Catholic teaching - the purifying of reason proper to religion in the realm of public debate - about civil partnerships and same sex marriage? Is an episcopal blog a more appropriate way? Whatever the medium of its propagation, I do think that this could come back to two means that have been held in regard in the history of the Church's life. I think of the homily and of the pastoral letter. Should Bishops be willing to preach, and to preach regularly, in fulfilling their teaching office? And should they be willing to write more pastoral letters, letters using the principles of Church doctrine to assess the proposals of public debate? One of my favourite examples of someone who did this is Archbishop Oscar Romero, who wrote four long and  detailed pastoral letters during his time as Archbishop of El Salvador, and the way in which he did that provides a good example that can be followed. The form of the homily and pastoral letter should allow a more complete and careful treatment of Catholic teaching, not prone to the potential confusion of the media interview or Q and A session at a news conference.

As a concluding thought, it might be worth reflecting on exactly what Pope Benedict XVI attempted in his address in Westminster Hall. He could very easily have condemned the legislation that the UK Parliament has passed with regard to abortion and same sex unions. But he didn't. Instead, he spoke about another piece of legislation passed by that Parliament, namely, the abolition of the slave trade. And he spoke about the principles that underpin the engagement of the Catholic Church, and religion in general, in public affairs.


Patricius said...

Thanks for yet another well-considered and thought-provoking post. I think your suggestion that the bishops write more detailed pastoral letters as a means of addressing current issues makes a lot of sense. Not only would it enable them to directly address the faithful while avoiding the slanting filter of the media it would allow for a more considered utterance than sometimes appears to emerge in the interview/press conference encounter with often hostile journalists.

Joe said...


Thank you for your comment. I think you quite rightly highlight two major "positives" in the idea of pastoral letters over press conferences, "positives" that I hadn't quite drawn out fully in my post.

berenike said...

Only, there must an absolute guarantee that the pastoral letters are given to people to read, not read out at Mass.

As one Polish writer puts it, "Pastoral letters are a form of torture by which the ecclesiastical authorities test the humility and endurance of the faithful".

But the same chap points out that they often make good *reading*.

Joe said...


I thought it was the homily that provided the form of torture ...

Oops, sorry, I didn't mean to say that. Naughty me.

[PS: Whatever happened to the idea of a "Year of Preaching", that was being floated, if I recall correctly, during the Synod of Bishops meeting on the Word of God?]

Ebeneezer said...

I'm not sure your criticism of certain Catholic blogs, which threaten to set themselves up as 'alternative teaching offices', is coherent. For you cannot be saying that the Bishops are beyond criticism on the part of the laity. On the contrary, you, a lay person, here set out criteria for appropriate episcopal behavior -- that it be restricted to its own proper office. It is implicit in your remarks that the Bishops are liable to criticism, from yourself and other lay persons, for encroaching on the office of the laity, just as the laity are liable to criticism for encroaching on the office of the Bishops.

So it can't be that the Bishops are in principle immune to lay criticism. But if the Bishops are liable to criticism for anything, surely they are liable to be criticized for going against the teaching of the Magisterium, explicitly or implicitly, and for doing everything they can to undermine Benedict's initiatives? Are not these instances of the Bishops failing to exercise their proper office? And this is the sort of thing for which the blogs you mention, which you won't list on your own blog (I *think* I know some of the ones you mean...) criticize the Bishops. So it *looks* rather as though you are retaining a right to criticize the Bishops, but when these other people do it they are themselves to be criticized for failing to exercise their proper office.